Even though I knew he was lying, when he said he read six hours every day, I decided to emulate him.
Even though I knew he was lying, when he said he read six hours every day, I decided to emulate him.
The first thing he said, once he sat in a train full of people, was: Fuck me. Those words were whispered, but not tentative, quite limpid, like unchallenged truth, like an axiom. So I heard him. And I remembered a story, which I copied into my notebook, to retell in a book I’m writing.
Gustavo, the shoemaker, is old and dies. He dies in his shop whilst repairing a pair of sandals. An angel accompanies him to heaven. At one moment the angel speaks: If you want to, you can now look down, and you’ll see the footprints of your life. The old man does so – and he sees the long trail of his steps. Why is it, he asks, that two or three times, for quite a long way, my footprints stopped, as if my life had ended and I had died? How is it possible? And the angel laughs and replies: Those were the times I carried you.1
The storyteller tells us: All stories are also the stories of hands – picking up, balancing, pointing, joining, kneading, threading, caressing, abandoned in sleep, cutting, eating, wiping, playing music, scratching, grasping, peeling, clenching, pulling a trigger, folding.2
I now attach a copy of a card I was given, days earlier, by a woman. She said she was deaf. She walked around the subway car, requesting the kindness of strangers, handing out cards. One side read: Hello! I am a deaf person. I am selling this…Deaf Education System Card…to make my living and to support my family. Would you kindly buy one? Pay any price you wish. Thank you! (Over)
Over, on the other side, alphabetized fingers and palms – pointed, bent, rounded, firm, held, triangulated, askew. Most importantly, some of the fingers, held together, resembled the gesture anyone makes when lifting a thing, or attempting to lift a person.
In the movie I watched before I fell asleep, a corrupt policeman was bribed with a gold wristwatch. He held it uncertainly, as though contemplating the worth of his soul, while being driven in a taxi. He slipped out his cheap silver wristwatch and handed it to the man driving him, a gift.
When I woke the next morning, forgetting the movie, I thought I had worn a wristwatch in my dream.
The last wristwatch I had worn, given as a gift by my lover, had fallen from my wrist several months earlier. I kept it in an old suitcase. When I last checked, it worked despite its shattered screen, telling the wrong time.
I read about a dream, also. The dream was recounted in a book I bought at a bookstore crumbling with used books, where the shelves were shaped as a fortress, the light dim, and the sensuous smell was of worn paper. The bookseller was young and unsmiling, I suppose in his late thirties. The dazzle in his eyes like that of a far older man—acknowledging all the ways books make us overage.
The book is also a gift from a previous owner, who underlined words and scribbled on the margins. There are long unmarked passages, like fallow territory, indicating incomprehension, or disdain. Or, perhaps, knowing the book would be disposed, the first reader bequeathed those passages to a future inheritor.
In another book, one I bought after wandering for an hour in a bigger bookstore, where the shelves are mock ramparts, another dream is recounted. A lover is writing her lover in prison. She tells him: “The word recently has altered since they took you. Tonight I don’t want to write how long ago that was. The word recently now covers all that time. Once it meant a few weeks or the day before yesterday. Recently I had a dream.”1
In my dream we have surpassed distance.
When I saw twin sisters for the first time in New York, I couldn’t take my eyes away. They had short, dark hair, and wore black shirts; one wore a jean, the other a skirt. What I noticed immediately after their style of clothing were the tattoos on their chest. I couldn’t tell how far down it went, if it covered more than their collarbones and the edge of their necks, if it left its trail on protuberant flesh. One tattoo, the one I saw clearly, resembled a giant mothy creature, crowned.
A regal bug? Was she—were they—royalty? What monarchical dreams attended their sleep?
(On the Caucasian skin, tattoos are of special quality: the black ink appears mixed in silver. The tone of any color imposed on such skin acquires an extra variation. It is not fully black. The skin is a muddier hue of white, the black is grey.)
And when, fifteen minutes later, I was alone, walking, I noticed the fly of my trouser was open. (Earlier, looking at their skin, I thought my trousers were of the same shade.) What embarrassed me about my fly wasn’t the knowledge of how long it remained open, but the realization that, perhaps, they returned my stare because they noticed the absurd composition of my trousers.
In mid-May my friend told me a story about twin sisters.
The sisters attended middle school with her, different classes. She never spoke to them, but admired the way they cut their hair, uniformly, a pair.
While in college at Barnard, several years later, she saw one of the twins, walking alone. Hours later she saw the other twin, also walking alone. Their hairstyles were now dissimilar.
Sometime in May she saw both girls again, co-passengers of a moving train. In all this time she hadn’t spoken to the girls, only seeing them in periphery, and recognizing who they were. Yet all three girls had, as a matter of fact, and of metaphor, grown up together, sharing an entwined existence in their chance encounters. It has become clear what you say about intimate strangers, my friend said.
The selfsame star is preserved.
“Tonight, the two waiters from the Café de Flore go to the Café Bonaparte for their aperitif; one has his ‘lady’ with him, the other has forgotten to take his flu pills; they are served…by the young waiter of the Café Bonaparte, who unlike them is on duty…A thousand examples of this reverberation, which is always fascinating: barber getting a haircut, shoeshine boy (in Morocco) having his shoes shined, a cook making herself dinner, an actor going to the theater on the night his own play is off, a screenwriter who sees films, a writer who reads books; Mlle M., an elderly secretary, cannot write the word ‘erasure’ without having to erase…”1
My friend tells me a story, from back home in Zimbabwe.
Her mother has a Mazda truck. It is old and beat-up, frequently requiring repair. Every now and then she calls a mechanic. She works outside the city, using the Mazda each time she travels. The mechanic can only work on the truck when she is in the city, and in her city house there is a maid. One day the maid tells my friend’s mother she is pregnant, and the mechanic is responsible. They are going to get married, the maid says. Everyone is happy; the maid moves out of the house, pregnant, married to the mechanic.
Time passes, a new maid is employed. The Mazda truck needs repair, and again a mechanic is hired, different from the first. The new maid again tells my friend’s mother she is pregnant. The second mechanic is responsible. Everyone, again, is happy. The new maid moves out of the house, pregnant, married to the second mechanic. When the Mazda is in need of repair again, my friend’s father says to my friend’s mother: Warn your mechanics!
A thousand examples of this reverberation.
Rora said: Rambo particularly liked me to take pictures with the dead and then look at them later. It turned him on—that was his big dick, his absolute power: being alive in the middle of death. That was all that it boiled down to: the dead were wrong, the living were right.
He said: The thing is, everybody who has ever been photographed is either dead or will die. That’s why nobody photographs me. I want to stay on this side of the picture.
In Sarajevo, the young man who emptied seven bullets into Rora grabbed his camera and walked calmly away. Thankfully, the negatives were at home.1
Your photograph has survived you, as if through it we consider the arcane meaning of your absence.
For example: I went to a memorial service. Beside the coffin I placed photographs of the once-living person. In one she was alone, in front of what seemed like a waterfall. In another, she was with her sister, smiling lovingly, as if aware of times when the photograph would be looked at without her. In the third, she was with her father. They were sitting. He held her from behind. My little girl; I will never let you go.
Those days, they said, after we took over a town, he would take exhaustive photos of the fallen terrorists. In their state of repose, each photographed body would still bear the evidence of life: sometimes, you could see the black of the eye receding into the socket, or the fingers recoiling at the outset of rigor mortis. I asked them how they always managed to allow him take those photographs. Weren’t they pressed for time? No, we weren’t. When you win a war you are free to do what you want with the enemy’s body.
When we still believed in having children, we disagreed on what sort of bedtime videos we’ll let them watch.
Until I told Nurya, there was no way to know how sickening it was. It was okay for you, and okay for me. The videos of dying black men appeared online from time to time, and when either of us heard of a new one, we waited until the other was home to watch, full screen, on the desktop computer. Nurya said there was something utterly sadistic about this—how do you sleep with those images in your visual bank?
In Aluu, four boys burning to death, charring in front of your gaze; in South Carolina, Walter Scott shot eight times in the back, running for his life; in New York, Eric Garner stiffening in a chokehold, crying out innocence; in Syria…
The funny thing, I said to Nurya in defense, is that you can now watch the videos vicariously. Online-people will generously tell you what they’ve seen, and their followers will carry the stories in hashtags. She kept glaring at me in revulsion.
You wrote: “Some of the ancient reliefs represent one Pharaoh or another with an analogous figure behind him. Perhaps these reliefs are what account for the translation of ka, in early studies, with the Arabic word for ‘double,’ qarin. Khnum, the god of creation, has a rotating wheel like that of a porter, his tool for fashioning human beings. He uses this wheel to create two corresponding forms: the body of the newborn, and his ka, which will accompany him from the day of his birth until after his death. During his life, a person is ‘master of his ka, coming and going with it,’ though it remains unseen. The ka has the characteristics and physical features of the person, with the same height and girth, the same walk and way of laughing, and wears similar clothing.”2
Do you remember how shocked we were to discover, in one of our Google image searches for “selfsame,” the only photograph that survives your grandmother’s youth? How did it get online? Of course you had never scanned it, or uploaded it to any website. Your father didn’t remember the photograph when you asked him, confused by your “alacritous fuss” (those were his exact words). And to make things even eerier, you couldn’t find the physical photograph again.
You wrote: “When Ajanaku died in his hometown last year, his church gave the impression that he was abroad. There were reports also that his corpse was brought to Lagos State by traditional cultists who allegedly held traditional rites for seven days in his Ikola home. The controversy that followed was that some of his parts were removed and that he had been hurriedly buried.”
Also: “Many of those who were there didn’t come to pay their last respects to the deceased but to catch a glimpse of the late pastor. As at the time of filing this report, the people were still waiting anxiously for the casket bearing the remains of the dead pastor to be opened. But there was no indication that the casket would be opened.”
I swear to you: the tattooed man consoled me after my flaccid visions of Garissa. I guess he is Spanish, or Argentine, or a body once dipped in the Mediterranean, aboard a dinghy. I guess he is a fragmented presence from all the immigrant histories I am now reading. I guess he is a postcard, sent to the hereafter. I guess with him I am going ashore, maybe to a better place. But unlike all others I’ve seen in my visions, all the floating dead and all the massacred dead, he is alive: the armpit hair, chest-hair, eyebrow, short hair, nipples encircled by dark aureole, active eye. Whatever doesn’t kill me can only make me stronger. These are the words of the tattoo. The inscription will remain on his body even in death.
Image: “Micah, 2009,” (c) Benjamin Fredrickson, photo of postcard courtesy E. Iduma.
“Repetition. Things had begun to double. There must be a term for it. Is it a natural process or an historical one? Should it be encouraged or suppressed? Or simply endured? Perhaps every gesture will beget its twin, every action find an echo, every insight become a catechism, like some chain reaction that can never be halted. The concatenated universe.”1
In the moving train there was a man with a hood over his head. He was sitting by the window. I saw him looking at his reflection. And then he smiled—every inch of his mouth seemed to show how deliberate this smile was, and how purposeful. I was curious. Had nostalgic happiness erupted, as is sometimes the case, from the past? Then I saw another train speeding past on the opposite track, which I perceived the man was also watching. I could now guess another reason for his smile: Someone sitting by the window of the parallel train, someone he loved, with whom he exchanged a conversational glance. Yet the improbability of this wasn’t lost on me.
When I turned away I noticed my own reflection. My lips were firmly pursed. The expression on my face could have been mistaken for an unhappy one, or the demeanor of a man who wasn’t remotely considering a smile.
Again I sought the hooded man’s face. He was now looking towards me. I could claim, that, at the moment our eyes met, the look on his face become similar to mine.
But faces aren’t mirrors. Supposing we can look long enough at others to discover their secret impulses, could we understand ours in the process?
People push others towards approaching trains. This happens occasionally in New York City. When I first arrived my friend S. said: Don’t stand too close to the edge of the platform, there are crazy people here. Sometime last November I saw a notice reporting the recent victim of such manic shove. The photograph, grainy from repeated copying, depicted a man with Asian features. Perhaps my age, perhaps in his early thirties. I walked on, towards the platform, fighting chilling thoughts. Two women who were waiting for the coming train discussed the tragedy. One said to the other: if any motherfucker pushes me, he goes down with me.
I now remember this woman. I wonder if she would have the time, in the instant it takes a perpetrator to push her forward, to reach back to drag him along, towards death. And if in the last moment of her life she would be consoled by the knowledge of shared dying.
I moved into this apartment in early October 2014. In mid-November, I traveled to Nigeria for a weekend, and lost a bunch of keys in the process; it included a key to the apartment building, my apartment, and my room. I paid almost $200 to a locksmith who helped break open my room. Although I got a new set of keys, I am yet to request for a new key to the building. Since then, I’ve always waited, reliant on chance, for neighbors who are entering or leaving.
Yesterday, April 3, I left the keys to my apartment in my room. Each time I’ve forgotten the bunch of keys, I’ve depended on my roommates to help open the door. But yesterday they were out of town.
I took the elevator to the basement, and knocked on the superintendent’s door. After about five minutes of knocking, a young man thrice my size opened, and I explained my predicament. He asked for a minute. Seconds later, the superintendent stood in front of me. He explained to me, straightaway, that he didn’t know who I was. I’d have to call the owner of the apartment to speak to him, and then he’ll consider letting me in. I called my roommate, whose uncle had transferred ownership to us. He spoke to the superintendent, and the matter was settled. The portly young man rode upstairs with me to open the door. I said my solemn thanks, truly grateful.
While I readied for bed, I felt disconsolately bitter at myself, for steady insouciance. First I imagined the conversation my roommates would now have about me, behind my back. They were likely to discuss my life as off-kilter: I couldn’t remember an item as essential as my keys. And then I imagined how I might have appeared to the superintendent: an unrecognizable black male, new to the city, surviving only through magnanimity. Otherwise homeless.
This is how I’ve lived: dependent and potentially disposable, even for a night.
I’ve returned to this photograph many times without looking at it; it’s installed somewhere in my understanding of the ways I could erase myself, or become anonymous.1
I rarely think of committing suicide; but there are times I want to comprehend the burden of those who are nameless in death, whose identity are summarized in a set of numbers.
With great anxiety I wrote
an essay about mass deaths
Remembering old gravestones
I’d seen in Sarajevo
also in Ijebu-Ode
clustered beside sidewalks
but emptied of vistors
As if in the years
between those burials
& my travels
an unquestioned doctrine
about human immortality
had gained young followers
guised as an arbiter of
things to come
dazzles you with premonition
Somewhere in a logbook of deaths
you find your name written
at first in unsteady lettering
but soon a sure one
Do not fight this
Even unnamable deaths
share this fate
– in ledgers of justice
all entries are equal.
I’m afraid, as you are, of anonymity—the unself, a forgotten name, an unremembered identity. This is the tyranny of mass deaths, and mass burials.
Where do stories hide after a bomb has gone off, after a town is left massacred? If stories disappear, how can they be returned to life? And if a name lies hidden within the leftover bits of a destroyed market, or a massacred town, is it still a name?
All over the world there are anonymous gravestones. In all the places where death is an ominous bridegroom—death that comes without warning—names disappear with a loud blast.
I think gravestones matter. I think death is scared of being named. If we look without fear at shredded limbs and blood that smells like melted metal, we’ll traverse the anonymity of unnamed corpses.
When dying becomes shared, a strange disruption occurs in the balance of justice. Justice works with identification, with straight not crooked fingers of accusation. It seeks a name, an act, it admits no exception. Too many destinies are decided in one loud blast, or in one devastating massacre—this cannot be justice.
What happens in a mass grave is outrageous. All paths intersect; limbs cross and skeletons misplace their bones. There is nothing purposeful in lacking an identity, even in death.
Death, rightfully, is said to be the imagination of the living. When hundreds of people are named dead, following a massacre, the hashtags that follow aim to discover the nature of dying. Mourning is imagining your own death, nothing more. It’s a form of humility to admit that you mourn yourself; that while mourning you realize the immediacy of life’s moments. Grief should be utility. Grief should become a way to avoid unnecessary dying. Anything else is like frolicking in the wrong garden.
In Nigeria, where ethnic fault lines couldn’t be made to intersect by amalgamation, grieving takes this unique utilitarian shape.
Go mourn yourself.
Breyten Breytenbach tells a story:
Today I heard about two twin ladies in their great old age, having lost both their husbands and the memory of orgasms and names, sitting together in a room warmed by an evening sun, and the one turning in utter uncertainty to the other to enquire plaintively: “Tell me, am I alive?”
The ultimate despair comes from sorrow jagged from overuse. Too many questions erupt in a climate of terror, but none more significant than those that interrogate the borders of memory, experience and existence. I think of too many Nigerians in the Northeast and North-central wondering whether life lived as a blur is still life at all. Today you wouldn’t need to be of a great old age to lose the memory of orgasms and names. Terror works the same way rape works; during the rapacious act, all pleasure is impossible, even the impulse to imagine pleasure.
Those who have the luxury to afford long moments of laughter must not overrate their experience. They must live with the burden of shared joylessness. For now there are moments of security in southern Nigerian cities. Those who live there must be desperate about enjoying this luxury while they can.
It’s important to remember that joy, in Nigeria today, is an unclaimed territory.